Date: Jan 2, 2013 7:10 PM
Author: Jerry P. Becker
Subject: A Long Winter's Nap
From Connect [College of Education + Human Development], University
of Minnesota, Volume 7, No. 1, pp. 18-19. Winter 2013. See
A Long Winter's Nap
Less than 20 years ago, discoveries about teen sleep began changing
school start times in Minnesota. Now it's a national movement.
By Gayla Marty
One morning in 1996, Kyla Wahlstrom [see
http://www.cehd.umn.edu/CAREI/people/KWahlstrom.html ] got a call
from a local superintendent. His school board had just decided to
change the high school start time from 7:15 to 8:30 the next fall,
only months away. Emerging research on profound differences in teen
sleep patterns was so strong that the board believed a later start
time could help their students. The superintendent called Wahlstrom
because she directs the U's Center for Applied Research and
Educational Improvement (CAREI), which examines new things happening
in schools. [See
Wahlstrom admits she was skeptical. But Edina went through with the
plan and the results astounded everyone. A year later, all seven high
schools in Minneapolis followed suit. CAREI was asked to investigate
and report the findings. Now, 15 years later, as author of the School
Start Time Study, Wahlstrom is called upon by school districts across
the country that are considering the change.
Here are Wahlstrom's answers to some common questions.
How is teen sleep different than sleep for anybody else?
Sleepiness is caused by melatonin's release in the body, which is
regulated by the central nervous system. Medical research shows that
teenagers-different from young children and adults-have a distinct
sleeping and waking cycle. Almost all teens in the world, not just in
our country, tend to fall asleep biologically about 10:45 p.m., and
their bodies and brains want to stay in the sleep mode until about 8
in the morning. The shift in sleep timing happens at puberty, around
age 13, and lasts until about age 19. That's still more than nine
hours of sleep a teen needs every night.
Younger children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep, and they can easily
fall asleep at a regular bedtime that is very early. Of course the
body is also regulated by sunlight, so kids are naturally more ready
to stay up in the summer when the sun is still up, too.
Then as adults, we go back to our genetically determined sleep
patterns and need less sleep-usually around 8 hours. About 22 percent
of us are larks and wake up naturally very early in the morning,
around 5 to 6 a.m., and about 27 percent of us are owls, who
naturally don't feel sleepy until 1 or 2 a.m. and don't function well
until around 10 a.m. The rest of us are somewhere in the middle.
What difference does it make to change school start times?
In the initial findings in both Edina and Minneapolis the teachers
said, "This is a different bunch of kids now with the later start.
They are awake and ready for learning." And the principals said, "We
have a different school here!" There were fewer disruptions in the
lunchroom, and passing times in the hallways were more subdued.
School counselors said the students were self-referring less for peer
relationship problems. When we interviewed parents-and we interviewed
and surveyed hundreds of parents-they said their kids were easier to
live with. Of course, it makes sense-no matter how young or old we
are, we're less crabby when we get enough sleep!
In October 2013, the Twin Cities will host a major national
conference on teen sleep-the intersection between medicine,
education, and policy-cosponsored by CAREI and the U's Academic
Health Center. Child psychologists, pediatricians, school personnel,
and policymakers are just some of those expected to attend. Watch for
conference information on the CAREI website.
After five years, Minneapolis found a statistically significant
improvement in the graduation rate. Kids stopped missing the bus and
missing as much class time. In 2010, a study in Virginia showed a
connection between later start times and a drop in car accidents by
teens on their way to school in the morning. So there are tremendous
positive outcomes by pushing back start times for high schools by at
least an hour.
How many schools have changed?
We stopped counting when more than 250 schools across the country had
made the change. In Minnesota, it appears that many school districts
have shifted to at least 8 a.m., and more are considering an 8:30
start. It's happening everywhere-I've heard from every state in the
union. Just today I had a call from a national newspaper to check
some facts for an article they're running about the local issues that
districts have in making such a change.
Are there costs and problems?
It can be very difficult for schools historically starting at 7:15 or
7:20 to make that shift. But Minneapolis did it, with 52,000 enrolled
students at the time they made the move, at no cost. What we've seen
is that it requires two things-a lot of careful planning, and for
people to believe the facts. By now the medical link between teen
sleep and school performance is strong.
Making the change creates an imbalance in the community for about a
year. You know: When are buses on the road? When are babysitters
available? In school districts where they use the same set of buses
for all grade levels, like Minneapolis, it means the elementary
students are now waiting for the bus on those winter mornings in the
dark. It's a real concern. Some neighbors take turns waiting with the
kids in the morning. On the other hand, those little ones may not be
going home in the dark at the end of the day anymore.
What can parents do to help teens get enough sleep?
It's about routines-the human body really likes routines. The body
has to slow down to get ready to fall asleep. Even as adults we know
we can't come home from a party and jump in bed! So parents can
establish routines for their kids to slow down before bed. There's
also brand-new research about the effect of light that comes off all
of our devices-cell phones and computers and TV: it's very disruptive
to the brain because the brain thinks it's daylight. It's a different
wavelength than regular light bulbs. So a half hour before bedtime,
depending on your kids' ages, you can say shut everything off except
a lamp. They can have a quiet game or story-parents can read to
younger ones, or kids can read themselves something calming in bed.
And we can tell them why! Sleep is important for learning.
How does sleep affect learning?
The function of sleep is to "prune" our memories of the stimuli that
have bombarded us all day and to consolidate what's important. If you
don't have that pruning and consolidation, you wake up all scattered
and disorganized. This is true for human learning at any
age-information is consolidated in your brain during sleep,
especially REM sleep. A good night's sleep is all about learning.
SIDEBAR - Up Next: In October 2013, the Twin Cities will host a
major national conference on teen sleep-the intersection between
medicine, education, and policy-cosponsored by CAREI and the U's
Academic Health Center. Child psychologists, pediatricians, school
personnel, and policymakers are just some of those expected to
attend. Watch for conference information on the CAREI website.
Learn more about CAREI, the direct research link between CEHD and
Minnesota schools preK-16, and school start-time research. [See
SIDEBAR PHOTO: Kyla Wahlstrom
Jerry P. Becker
Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction
Southern Illinois University
625 Wham Drive
Mail Code 4610
Carbondale, IL 62901-4610
Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O]
(618) 457-8903 [H]
Fax: (618) 453-4244